Baltimore Orioles: The Ironic Independence Day Stadium Fire
Before the Baltimore Orioles were the MLB team they are today, they were an important part of the earliest days of baseball, in the American Association, National League, and International League.
Many notable players played for the various early versions of the Baltimore Orioles, especially in the International League during 1903-1914 and 1916-1953.
The earliest iterations of the Baltimore Orioles played at a park called American League Park, but known by fans and players as Oriole Park. It was located on the corner of Greenmount Avenue and 29th Street in the northeastern part of the city.
Sadly, on July 4, 1944 – in the midst of World War II – the park caught fire and was completely destroyed. Imagine the fear the people of Baltimore felt that day as they watched their beloved stadium burn, thinking it was an attack from the Axis powers.
Unfortunately, the park was constructed of wood, as many old stadiums were in the early days of baseball. After every game, a pair of groundskeepers would hose down the stands to be sure any embers from cigarettes or cigars were extinguished. The wood was also covered with creosote to protect it from the weather. But, none of it mattered in the early hours of July 4, 1944.
According to a story from The Baltimore Sun, the fire began and quickly engulfed the stadium. The groundskeeper who slept at the park called it a “sheet of fire.”
The Orioles didn’t just lose their home stadium that day, they also lost all of gear and uniforms in the dugouts. Again, this happened in the midst of World War II, so the materials used to make cleats and bats were used for the war effort.
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It took almost two weeks before the business manager chose a temporary home stadium that would suffice. It ended up being Municipal Stadium, which had a left field fence that was about 290 feet and a right-center fence over 500 feet. It also had enough room for over 50,000 fans. And, in the true connotation of the famous movie phrase “if you build it, they will come,” the fans regularly filled the seats.
All that trauma, recovery, and record-setting attendance led the Orioles to win the International League pennant in 1944. It turns out that all of those events combined to change the course of professional sports in Baltimore. The MLB noticed what was happening in Baltimore, and continued to watch until the St. Louis Browns were moved there in 1954.
To support the success of the 1944 Orioles and the fans who wanted to see them, Baltimore spent several years upgrading Municipal Stadium and eventually renamed it Memorial Stadium. The Baltimore Colts ended up sharing the space with the Orioles. Both teams saw success until the Colts left Baltimore in 1984, and Camden Yards opened in 1992.
It’s rare to celebrate a fire. But without the Oriole Park fire of 1944, it’s safe to say that the history of professional sports in Baltimore would have taken a different turn.